GONZALES — AT&T expects to begin rolling out small cell towers in unincorporated Ascension Parish early next year after the Parish Council adopted a new ordinance Thursday that sets up a permitting process for the structures.
The towers are expected to improve the telecommunications giant's wireless service in Ascension and serve as a bridge for 5G wireless service in the parish.
The prospect of the new small cell towers in Ascension Parish has generated little public interest in meetings about them so far, but the new ordinance has been the product of work between AT&T and the Parish Council for nearly two years.
David Aubrey, AT&T regional vice president, couldn't provide a precise number of towers that would be installed in Ascension, but said he expected it would take until early next year for the parish to have the newly adopted permitting program up and running.
"The difficulty is we're at the end of the year now. We have been working on this. So some things are probably going to be moving to 2021, but we are ready with a few (towers)," he said.
The towers would support existing 4G LTE service, not 5G.
Due to their low heights and clunky profiles, the towers have sparked controversy in Baton Rouge and around the country as municipal leaders have tried to control their look and placement in residential areas.
The Baton Rouge city-parish is expected to consider a revision of its ordinance later this month after the first wave of towers under the older ordinance sparked outcry and the creation of a special community task force to rewrite the ordinance.
The new Ascension Parish rules give the parish and homeowners associations some say in where the towers are located and how they look, while also requiring advance notice about when towers are planned within 300 feet of individual properties or neighborhoods.
The new rules govern the placement of the new towers in the parish's rights of way, public land that lines streets throughout Ascension. They also call for an initial $1,000 fee for new poles and at least $500 for use of existing poles.
Providers would also have to pay $250 annual fees for continued use of parish rights of way.
The final version of the rules that were adopted by the council Thursday, 9-1, added language that will direct fee revenue to beautification and improvement of parish rights of ways and the road and highway entrances on the parish boundaries and Interstate 10 interchanges.
Councilman Joel Robert lost in a bid to include language to require telecommunications companies — with an option to waive the requirement — to install street lights on their new poles.
In the weeks leading up the vote Thursday night, Parish Attorney O'Neil Parenton Jr. had issued an opinion saying that federal rules prevented such a requirement because it would unfairly single out telecommunications companies versus other utilities using parish rights of way.
Robert tried Thursday night to amend the ordinance to add the light pole language again but a vote on his amendment failed, 3-7. A second motion to defer action on the rules failed to get a second. The final ordinance was adopted with only Robert opposed.
Robert said afterward Thursday that he disagreed with the parish attorney's opinion and believed it wasn't in the spirit of the original federal findings because his proposal would have applied to all telecommunications providers in Ascension equally from the first tower installed in the parish.
Aubrey said a mandatory light requirement would have been discriminatory to telecommunications companies overall compared with other utilities that use parish rights of way. He said AT&T will still try to work with the parish and homeowner associations to meet their preferences.
The terms 4G and 5G denote different "generations" of wireless connection and capacity. LTE represents an intermediate step between true 4G and the older, slower 3G service, which had enabled the first major step beyond voice and text to the videos and music now standard on smart phones.
The 5G service is supposed to represent a quantum leap in internet speeds and reliability over even true 4G service, allowing greater networking capabilities and fueling the "internet of things" that is expected to bring advances in a myriad of devices used in daily life, business and industry.
Cellphone makers like iPhone and Android are already rolling out cellphones designed for 5G service. A November 2019 forecast that IHS Markit did for Qualcomm Technologies found 5G's full impact should be realized by 2035 and add $13.2 trillion to the global economy.
One drawback of 5G, however, is that it has limited long-range service and needs more towers than older generations of wireless service.
Other provisions in the proposed Ascension ordinance indicate a variety of preferences for the look, structure and placement of towers, including having them outside of neighborhoods and away from scenic and historic areas, where practical.
The rules even allow landowners and homeowner associations to submit maps for preferred locations of future towers, but those maps can't bind the parish's ultimate permit decisions.
In 2019, despite fears raised by the expansion of 5G, the FCC and U.S. Food and Drug Administration said there's no evidence radio waves emitted by old or new cellphones harm human health. As a result, they proposed not changing federal radio frequency emissions standards.